Development of Political Democracy and Political Party Pluralism in Serbia, 1903-1914

By Suster, Zeljan E. | East European Quarterly, January 1998 | Go to article overview
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Development of Political Democracy and Political Party Pluralism in Serbia, 1903-1914

Suster, Zeljan E., East European Quarterly


The purpose of this paper is to analyze leading issues in the development of political democracy in Serbia in the decade before World War I. The main accent is on assessing the process of the growing importance of political parties in Serbia after the dynastic change in 1903. Research in this area is scant, which is especially apparent in the literature available in the English language.(1)

The period immediately following the Congress of Berlin marked the beginning of rapid economic and political development in Serbia. Economic development was decisively influenced by the Trade Treaty and subsequent "Secret Convention" which Serbia's government concluded with Austria-Hungary in 1881. While an analysis of Serbia's economic development is beyond the scope of this paper, the changing economic conditions in Serbia often played a decisive the role in the unfolding of Serbia's political milieu.

The prominent role of economic issues in Serbia's political development became apparent almost immediately after the Congress of Berlin. The first truly independent Serbian government, headed by the premier and foreign minister Jovan Ristic, was forced to resign on October 26, 1881, as a result of its inability to give in to Austria-Hungary in the matter of the economic treaty. The livestock merchants and wealthy peasants strongly resented a tariff war with Austria Hungary which loomed during Ristic's premiership. Moreover, the next two decades in Serbia's political landscape were closely related to the economic relation between Serbia and her powerful northern neighbor.


The fall of Ristic's Liberal government corresponded with the growing role of two new parties in Serbia's political life, the Progressives and the Radicals. The Progressive party was the successor of the young Conservative group, which emerged following the retirement of the older leaders of the Conservative party, particularly Ilija Garasanin and Nikola Hristic, after Prince Michael's death in 1868. Interestingly, at the beginning, the political platforms of the young Conservatives were hard to distinguish from the dominant Liberals. It was the young conservatives who charged the 1869 Constitution as not being liberal enough. The Progressives were admirers of Western enlightenment and technical progress. Having very little respect for the masses of the people, they advocated a system of elitist oligarchy in which an electorate would be divided into voting classes according to the amount of taxes paid. In addition, society would be led by a senate of intellectuals and prosperous people. The main reasons for the Progressives' rapid rise to power were economic, the same as caused the fall of Ristic's Liberal government.

The Radicals were another rapidly growing party in Serbia in the years that followed the Congress of Berlin. Their ideological beginnings can be traced to student groups in St. Petersburg and Zurich in the 1870s. The ideological position of these groups varied from Russian populism and anarchism, to official Marxism. However, Serbia's reality, characterized by the significant economic backwardness and political underdevelopment, forced many of the Radical leaders to abandon their theoretical socialism. Moreover, to achieve their political ends, some of the radicals readily made political compromises. When the Liberals suffered overwhelming defeat because of their disdained economic measures, the Radical Nikola Pasic was voted a vice-president of the Assembly. When Prince Milan Obrenovic vetoed Pasic's appointment, the Radicals answered by publishing a new newspaper titled Samouprava (Self-Government).

In the first issue of the newspaper, published on January 20, 1881, the Radical's program appeared on the very first page. The program, which was effectively the formal beginning of the Radical Party, called, among other things, for the following: amendments to the 1869 Constitution to assure universal manhood suffrage; self-government to local districts and communes; direct proportional taxes; a citizen-controlled national bank with regional branches; free public education; close ties with Montenegro and Bulgaria; complete freedom of press, assembly, association, local autonomy, and security of person and property.

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Development of Political Democracy and Political Party Pluralism in Serbia, 1903-1914


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